Klopp must show how much Liverpool have progressed - or not?
Liverpool v Manchester United is a sweeping clash of styles - Muscular defence v attacking
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp is massively popular among fans. Photograph: PA
Welcome back, then, the Premier League. Now. Where were we? Tasked with hitting the big dramatic notes from the start after two weeks of international break, the Premier League’s focus groups and script-editing teams could hardly have come up with a better opening act than Manchester United’s trip to Liverpool this Saturday lunchtime. Skip the intro. Let’s just turn it all right back up to 11.
Not that there’s anything new here, just some old, fond, familiar flavours. Cut the Premier League season open anywhere you like in the last decade or so and the chances are you’ll find José Mourinho contemplating another potentially season-spoiling trip to Anfield.
Or the latest eminent tactician scratching his head and wondering why previously workable defensive systems have been infected with the dreaded Premier League flakiness. Not to mention an agreeably sweeping clash of styles, in this case muscular team defence versus adrenal, scattergun attack.
As ever when these teams meet the occasion will be touched by a genuine spike of north-west derby bile. But this is a significant moment for other reasons. Most obviously the result on Saturday will bring into narrower focus Liverpool’s progress under Jürgen Klopp, seven games into a season that has seen them looking a little feverish and flustered, all trapped energy, legs whirring like a cartoon roadrunner suspended above the canyon floor, still trying to work out whether to fall or fly.
There is a tendency to obsess over the influence of managers, to hoist them aloft as a straw man, patsy and all-round piñata for every misstep, every note of misfortune, every beached ambition. In this case there is an unavoidable circularity. On Saturday it will be almost exactly two years since Klopp became Liverpool manager. Progress has been made. Albeit, as ever in the Premier League, this raises the more metaphysical question of how exactly progress is measured, what gauge you apply to success.
There are plenty of obvious ticks. Liverpool are in the Champions League. They have reached two cup finals. They play nice, engaging football, certainly nicer and more engaging than the tail end of the Brendan Rodgers era. But they are still to make the kind of alchemical step up some might have hoped for given Klopp’s record at Borussia Dortmund and his enduring aura, a way of engaging with those around him that suggests all possibilities are open, a managerial presence that even in defeat has something oddly evangelical and proselytising about it.
Opponents have been less amenable. Liverpool will pick up their season on a horrible run of one win in seven across all competitions since the end of August, with no clean sheets and 14 goals conceded. Sadio Mané is out for six weeks with a hamstring strain. Even the manager has begun to gripe a little, looking bemused by the recurrent defensive mistakes of players he coaches every week, selects every weekend, and in some cases brought to the club himself.
Last week Klopp insisted, as he must when asked a silly question, that Liverpool are still in the title race. Given the lavish spending elsewhere, the sense of a three-team elite ready to break away at the top, few will have expected Liverpool to be pushing for the title right to the end of the season.
This, though, is all a bit sudden. Should United win at Anfield the gap between Liverpool and the league leaders will be 10 points. To concede any meaningful presence in the title race this early in the season, to narrow the focus so early to a 30-game slog for fourth place, is not the progress club or manager will have been hoping for when he turned down offers elsewhere to make Anfield his home.
Klopp has always been about method and coaching rather than headline recruitment. He does, though, need the basic human tools. It has become fashionable to pick away at his tactics, his previous successes, to take a shot at a much-trailed overseas coach. But the current tactical plan – press hard, play on the edge – is being undermined by faulty execution. There isn’t a great deal wrong that could not be solved by centre-halves making the right decisions at the right moment and a high-class centre-forward who can do both parts of the job, running hard and still managing to finish like a sniper.
This is the conundrum Klopp faces at a club without the will to recruit the correct personnel. The hard-running Klopp style demands, as a first principle, a striker to run and harry and lead the press. These players are available. But those who can also finish every half-chance while also leading the charge are both rare and prohibitively expensive. Klopp needs a centre-forward with Daniel Sturridge’s eye and Roberto Firmino’s heart. They had one a while ago. He went to Barcelona for £75m.
Looking back to that first game in charge, a high-energy 0-0 draw at White Hart Lane, it is remarkable how little has changed. Liverpool were defensively shaky, kept in the game by Simon Mignolet’s saves. Eight of the starting XI are still at the club. Liverpool have spent just £20m or so net since Klopp arrived, which includes £35m of actual UK currency on Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. A striker like Diego Costa or Harry Kane would transform this team, transform the perception of Klopp’s methods to date.
Instead he will work on refining what he has, faced this early in the season with a derby game that could in effect kill Liverpool’s title challenge before the clocks have gone back. This is something of a Mourinho speciality. It is three and a half years since his Chelsea team came to Anfield and produced a brilliant defensive performance to do something similar to Liverpool’s most persuasive title challenge of the Premier League era, winning a deathly, bruising game on the break.
Mourinho is likely to produce another well-laid, physically robust game of counterattack. Anfield has both haunted and inspired him since 2005 and the Champions League defeat to a scrambled Luis García goal that Mourinho still disputes. He has lost one Premier League game there since, winning three and drawing two, and always arriving a little more sandpapery, a little more combative.
For Saturday United will have Phil Jones back and Romelu Lukaku up front despite an ankle niggle. Marouane Fellaini might have played if fit but Nemanja Matic plus Ander Herrera is still an energetic midfield. Mané’s absence will probably see Coutinho move into Liverpool’s front three and Emre Can come into midfield. Klopp will hope Can’s exhilarating long range net-buster for Germany this week is an omen of something similarly penetrative. Nobody even resembling a centre-forward has scored a league goal for Liverpool since the 4-0 thrashing of Arsenal in August.
United, for their part, have conceded just six goals in their last 14 matches going back to the middle of May, two of those to Real Madrid, one at home to Burton in the EFL Cup.
Defences may or may not win titles but they do often close out the tightest of games. At a similar break in the season last year Antonio Conte spent a few days brooding in Italy and recalibrated his own defence so dramatically Chelsea set off on an unstoppable spree.
Klopp will have been desperate to get his full squad back after the break and wreak something similar. With Tottenham away to follow next week, this already looks like an unusually urgent meeting of city neighbours, of styles and personalities, of press high and defend deep.